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Engler Proposal and Pigeon River Plan

Marrying Environment and Economy

January 31, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

One of the policy triumphs of the post war period in Michigan was the nation’s best land use plan for developing oil and gas in sensitive environments. The plan, put into effect in the Pigeon River Country State Forest was the final step of an extraordinary agreement reached in 1980 between the oil industry, the environmental community, and state government.

Nearly two decades later, the Pigeon River Hydrocarbon Development Plan has performed much as it was intended. Oil and gas drilling was barred in the northern two thirds of the 91,000-acre forest, which lies in parts of Cheboygan, Otsego, and Montmorency counties. Drilling in the southern third of the forest was confined to less than 30 sites. Road, pipelines, and processing facilities were carefully laid out. Noise and other industrial intrusions were minimized. The companies also agreed to subject most aspects of exploration to oversight by a citizen-led advisory committee. The result is that damage in one of northern Michigan’s great forests was curtailed even as the region yielded oil and gas resources worth more than $700 million.

Despite living up to expectations, though, this model framework was never adopted for use in any other sensitive wild area in Michigan. That was a mistake that Governor John Engler now has an historic opportunity to correct.

On January 28, in the State of the State address, the governor inserted himself in the center of a debate over natural gas development, the public trust, and property rights that has been boiling in northern Michigan for more than two years. He proposed, as a way to solve key facets of the dispute, spending public funds to buy private mineral rights in the region’s last "very special, irreplaceable, unique areas."

On a political level, the proposal is another telling display of the governor’s savvy. By gaining control of the private minerals underlying public forest, the state would be able to simultaneously safeguard magnificent wild lands while also protecting property rights, a concern that is exceptionally close to the governor’s heart.

And there lies the worm in the violet. One of the unique state-owned wild places that has attracted the governor’s attention is the Jordan River Valley, northeast of Traverse City. The valley has been off limits to industrial development, including oil and gas drilling, under a state-sanctioned management plan since 1975.

Over the last few months, though, a private developer named Walter Zaremba has sought to drill a well in the center of the 22,000-acre semi-wilderness. Zaremba is planning to develop a 40-acre tract of privately-owned minerals that he leased in 1994, 19 years after the no-drilling plan went into effect.

Many critics, among them county commissioners and senior DNR officials, have argued persuasively that the state has full authority to bar the new well under existing law. Moreover, say legal experts, the developer’s property right interest is so small as to be invisible. Why? Because Zaremba had no reasonable expectation of gaining economic returns from his speculative investment in an area where drilling was banned.

Opponents assert the state has no responsibility to reward a speculator for a risky investment that didn’t pan out. And if the state ended up setting such a precedent, government’s authority to zone land, and protect public safety and the environment would be seriously eroded. Anybody would be able to violate land use and public safety laws at will by asserting a property right interest. Unless public compensation were paid, unscrupulous developers could built strip joints next to churches and hazardous waste plants near village squares. Since government does not have the money to buy its way out of every environmental dispute, adopting such a property rights-based policy seriously denigrate the quality of life.

The lesson here is that compensation should be used only as a last resort. The Engler Administration appears ready to argue that is precisely the case in the Jordan Valley and in several other irreplaceable areas threatened with natural gas drilling. But well before any money changes hands, the governor can take a less expensive and more enduring step by reviving for other regions the superb stewardship model that has been used in the Pigeon River Country. That doesn’t mean drilling in a third of the Jordan Valley. Rather it means carefully evaluating the quality of natural resources, the technical ability of the industry, available public funds, and then deciding where drilling belongs and where it doesn’t.

The governor’s interest couldn’t have come at more opportune time. During the Engler Administration, northern Michigan has been the site of the most intensive natural gas development in the United States. Some 6,000 natural gas wells have been drilled, disfiguring thousands of acres of forest, damaging rivers and streams, causing unrest in dozens of communities. The absence of strong state oversight has now put at risk the Jordan Valley and most of the other last great wild places in Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Although Governor Engler anointed himself during the State of the State address as the king of conservation, the facts and the record argue otherwise. The Administration now has an opportunity to address this lapse in leadership by joining the compensation idea with energy development plans modeled after the one that has been so successful in the Pigeon River Country.

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